One law for the poor at Grenfell Tower

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Part of Grenfell Tower, after the tragic fire (image via ChiralJon/Flickr)

In austerity Britain, can justice and accountability be served for the victims of the Grenfell fire? Or does the rule of law only serve the wealthy? Steve Tombs and David Whyte report.

DAYS AFTER the Grenfell Tower disaster, London Mayor Sadiq Khan expressed the sentiments of many – not least the bereaved, the survivors and the local community at large – when he stated that,

“ ... if negligence or other wrongdoing by individuals or companies played any role whatsoever, I will fight for the full force of the law to be brought to bear.”

But what exactly is the full force of the law in this case?

One demand has been that those who had the knowledge and ability to prevent what has happened should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. And the fire at Grenfell seems exactly the kind of disaster which the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act was introduced in 2007 to deal with. Yet in almost ten years since it was introduced, the law has only been used successfully 21 times — and in no cases has a large organisation been convicted following a multi-fatality disaster.

In fact, following the deaths of six people at the Lakanal House tower block in 2009, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) eventually decided against pursuing a case of corporate manslaughter against Southwark Council, despite the fact that the council: 

' ... knew the building posed a fire risk but did not act and had not carried out a fire risk assessment.'

In any case, the scope of this relatively new law was carefully shaped to the needs of the business class rather than ordinary people. Champagne and Pimms glasses would no doubt have been chinking in some parts of Kensington and Chelsea when the Blair Government announced in 2006 that the new law would grant a blanket exemption to directors and senior individuals in organisations.

This means that the most likely result of any such prosecution is a fine against the organisation — and in this case the costs of a fine against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) would ultimately fall on local taxpayers. It is a prime example of what happens so often in our legal system: even the laws that appear to be holding the wealthy to account tend to do nothing of the sort.

Some senior experts have noted that there may be evidence to support a different approach — a prosecution of individuals for the common law offence of manslaughter. We already know unequivocally, from the testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association, that the RBKC was told about the fire risks and were warned of specific risks on multiple occasions. Yet, apparently, there was no adequate fire safety assessment.

Here we confront a much deeper problem with the law designed to regulate organisations and businesses. Regulation has been on the backfoot in the UK for some 30 years. Successive governments have virtually mandated a withdrawal from law enforcement in health and safety, and in local authority regulation.

When David Cameron pledged to kill off health and safety for good, he followed a long line of governments desperate to prove their pro-business credentials by cutting inspection and prosecution — and stripping back regulations. In most recent years, austerity cuts have taken us to the point that the average workplace can now expect an inspector to call once every 50 years.

The cuts to fire and rescue services have fallen hardest on the poorest.

Fire protection has been similarly compromised by the cuts. A report by the National Audit Office shows that, between 2010 and 2015, funding for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities fell by 28 per cent, on average, in real terms. Savings came predominantly from reducing staff costs and reducing audits, inspections and fire risk checks. The result: fire safety checks in tower blocks fell 25 per cent in the most recent five years.

Perhaps most alarmingly in light of Grenfell, the report noted that the government had: 

' ... reduced funding most to fire and rescue authorities with the highest levels of need … as defined by the social and demographic factors.'

In other words, the cuts to fire and rescue services have fallen hardest on the poorest — just like all austerity cuts.

More generally, at local authority level, since the cuts began to bite, campaigns to enforce regulations against business have become almost extinct. This is because most councils, unlike RBKC, have reached rock bottom in terms of their ability to maintain services.

As an environmental health officer in Merseyside put it to one of us recently:

“It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.”

Even more galling is that RBKC, the richest borough in London and one of the few councils that remain cash rich, is choosing law enforcement on behalf of the rich over enforcing the law in the general interest.

'Even the laws that appear to be holding the wealthy to account tend to do nothing of the sort.'

We know this by looking closely at what building enforcement officers in Kensington and Chelsea have been doing in recent years. In 2015, RBKC embarked on a major campaign to stop construction companies displaying unlawful and ugly advertisements, and messages on the side of the buildings.

At the time, RBKC planning policy head Cllr Timothy Coleridge said:

"Unfortunately, some developers ignore the rules and turn their hoardings and scaffolding covers into huge adverts, sometimes in the heart of historic and sensitive residential areas. This is unfair on our residents and it is unfair on those developers that follow the rules and we will prosecute when required."

In other words, this was a law enforcement campaign aimed at enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the area and maintaining the successful gentrification of the area, rather than ensuring high standards of building renovation for working class residents.

The public inquiry and inquests will seek to learn how we can prevent another Grenfell Tower happening again. If the police and the CPS are serious about using the full force of the law, it may well be possible to prosecute for corporate manslaughter and for common law manslaughter. Individuals in charge of key decisions can be held accountable for this latter offence if they have acted with gross negligence and have breached a particular duty of care. It is possible those conditions will be met in the case of Grenfell Tower.

By contrast, a lack of prosecution will send a clear and powerful message: that justice and accountability cannot be served in austerity Britain. But the solution to what happened at Grenfell will not be found in the courts. If there is one resounding lesson that must be learned, it is that any future government must reverse 30 years of attacks on regulation and law enforcement and cease this war against the poor.

This article was originally published in openDemocracy and is republished with permission.

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